Festival needs fine-tuning

The Cape Town Jazz Festival needs to start paying attention to the little things if it wants to continue calling itself "Africa's grandest gathering".

The music at the festival was brilliant in 2014, with many standout shows from both local and international artists.

Talking to audience members during the festival, it was clear that there had been many highlights, particularly on the Rosie's stage on the Saturday night. Young South African pianists Kyle Shepherd and Bokani Dyer wowed the audience with a duo performance that was playful and euphoric, and the Blue Notes Tribute Orkestra paid their respects to composers such as Johnny Dyani, Chris McGregor and Dudu Pukwana in a spectacular set of South African kwela-influenced bebop.

Then there were the artists who just knocked you for a six, like the spirited and mournful set from Adullah Ibrahim and Ekaya, and the debut South African performance for Ambrose Akinmusire, who appeared to cast a spell over the audience on the Moses Molelekwa stage on Friday night.

The best was saved for last when Kenny Garrett brought the house down with a mind-blowing set on Saturday night. The real jazz heads lapped up every second of it.

But getting the line-up of artists right is just part of the puzzle of throwing a successful music festival, and unfortunately this year's event was lacking on quite a few fronts that are unrelated to the music.

These included ticketing, stage set-up, ushers and merchandising.

Failures in these different facets offset the hard work done in securing a great line-up and definitely contribute to the overall experience of the fans, the people whose hard-earned cash allow the festival to take place every year.

To be completely fair and even-handed, the Cape Town International Jazz Festival is no different to other South African jazz festivals in this regard. The Standard Bank Joy of Jazz in Jo'burg is an incredibly unfriendly festival for audiences too.

Here are the things I believe the Cape Town Jazz Festival needs to rectify for their 2015 edition:

Venue and stage set up

Firstly, is it too much to ask to free our country's jazz festivals from the clutches of convention centres?

The answer to my question seems to be yes, because the Joy of Jazz festival recently announced that it is moving from Newtown to the Sandton Convention Centre for its 2014 event.

Jazz is a vibrant, fluid art form that is all about the spirit of imagination, so why do we host them in the dourest, most staid and boring venues we have? A conference room does not make for an intimate and magical experience.

Too often I have found myself on an uncomfortable chair, in an overly lit room, peering towards a stage that seems miles away, with not an iota of well-honed atmosphere in sight.

Ushers, security and merchandising

Which brings me to my second gripe: when you hire people to be ushers, security or to work in hospitality at your festival, it would help if they were able to assist your audience with basic requests such as where the closest toilet is, how do I find the Moses Molelekwa stage and where to buy CDs of the artists.

When I posed these questions, they were greeted with dumfounded looks and unhelpful answers.

Master of ceremonies

Thirdly, where do jazz festival directors find their masters of ceremonies?

Too many times this past weekend audiences had to sit through the most tedious and awkward pre-show banter from MCs, who hadn't bothered to do any research.

This includes not knowing where the upcoming artist or band is from, what their history is, what albums they have released or even sometimes how to pronounce their name.

In fact, at one point I sat there while a man who earns his salary from a radio station turned his inability to pronounce the name of American jazz trumpeter Ambrose Akinmusire into a condescending and tacky joke.

Granted, Akinmusire is not an easy name, but hey, I learnt how to pronounce it from his Wikipedia page a few weeks ago.

It took all of a minute and it's not even my job.

Ticketing and pricing

Lastly, I want to get down to ticketing and prices. I get that jazz is an elitist business in South Africa, but why does it have to be that way?

Why is ticketing such a complicated business for these festival directors? As an example Joy of Jazz has multiple stages, but they don't sell a full festival access ticket.

So if artist X is playing stage A and artist Y is playing stage B, I have to buy two tickets for two different sets of artists on two different stages, just to see the two artists that interest me.

It must be about profit margins, because it's clearly not a consumer-friendly ticketing strategy.

Let's get back to the Cape Town Jazz Festival. When I bought my tickets for the festival, it was on the basis that there were 10 shows that I really wanted to see, which made the R750 price tag seem reasonable.

But when I arrived at the festival, I discovered that six of those 10 shows were in the Rosie's venue and required an additional ticket of R30 for every show.

So that's another R180 on top of the R750 I had already paid.

Apparently this was stipulated on the website and in press releases that were put out, but I didn't see it anywhere, and I pay more attention to these things than the average punter as a member of South Africa's media.

The explanation I was given is that these extra tickets were about controlling the crowd, so that there are no safety issues.

Safety is important, but realistically this still does not explain the extra R30.

If crowd control is an issue, allow the fans to collect tickets for these shows for free from a specific place at the festival and, once they are all taken up, that's that.

This would give every ticket holder a fair chance to see all the artists that were advertised, not just those who can afford to pay for additional tickets.

Rashid Lombard, the founder of the jazz festival and the chief executive of ESP Afrika, said the festival had been charging "a nominal fee" for Rosie's tickets since 2007. He said this was as a result of the very popular Miriam Makeba show in 2006.

"In fact, it was as a direct result of requests from the public that we began charging for Rosie's," said Lombard this week. 'There are a number of other reasons why we institute a fee for Rosie's, some of those being that this is a serious jazz stage with a seated audience and therefore finite numbers.

"Artists performing here deserve the quiet respect of the audience, and in fact we go so far as to discourage audience members from leaving during the performance as it disturbs the performers and other audience members," he said. I must admit I am still not convinced.

Until the Cape Town Jazz Festival organisers start paying attention to these little details, they have no right to give the event the lofty title of "Africa's grandest gathering".

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Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye
Lloyd Gedye is a freelance journalist and one of the founders of The Con.

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